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A series of intense jolts awakened residents of the western portion of Tennessee shortly after two o'clock on the morning of December 16, 1811, convincing many people that the world was coming to an end. Little did anyone realize that the region was shaking from the first of three major earthquakes that would become known as some of the most violent quakes in the history of North America.
Though most Americans associate earthquakes with the Pacific Coast states, three powerful quakes known as the New Madrid earthquakes shook the region along the Mississippi River in 1811 and 1812. The quakes were named after New Madrid, the closest settlement to the center of the quakes, in the territory of Missouri. If the Richter scale had existed in 1811, scientists believe the quakes would have measured more than 8.0. The quake zone covered more than one million square miles, an area two to three times larger than the 1964 Alaska earthquake and ten times larger than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.